Simmered Kabocha Pumpkin and Chicken

Simmered Kabocha Pumpkin and Chicken

Learn about nimono, the Japanese simmering technique, and how Chef Isao Yamada prepares a flavorful Braised Kabocha Pumpkin and Chicken dish using umami-rich ingredients like dashi, mirin, and soy sauce. Discover the specific culinary techniques involved and the significance of umami in Japanese cuisine.

Simmering or nimono is a central cooking style in Japanese cuisine, and an incredibly versatile method to prepare fish, meat, vegetables and poultry. What I love about nimono -- and all of Japanese cuisine -- is how it relies on such a remarkably constrained palette of seasonings to create so many different tastes. We're talking soy sauce (2 kinds mainly), mirin, sake, sugar, miso and dashi. Within these half-dozen ingredients, four are brewed and fermented with variants of the same koji mold (soy sauce, mirin, sake, miso), or prepared from fermented ingredients (dashi) -- so the components that make up these foods (rice, soy beans, kombu, bonito, sometimes barely) have been broken down and their flavor compounds released and blossomed, in other words, their umami, their incredibly intense umami or sense of savoriness. So cooking with these seasoning means infusing foods with and irresistible flavor fundamental to human beings (breast milk is extremely rich in umami compounds, fyi). That's why Japanese cuisine is so appealing, even though it traditionally has not relied on butter or olive oil or other fats to create flavor, like in other cuisines.

With nimono, foods are simmered in umami-rich liquids so they (a) taste incredibly good, and (b) cook quickly because the flavor is already so developed in the seasonings -- you don't have to cook for hours to tease out the flavor (think French braising).

Here's how Chef Isao Yamada cooked kabocha and chicken:

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 kabocha pumpkin, prepared as detailed
  • 20 fl oz dashi
  • 2.5 fl oz mirin
  • 1.5 fl oz usukuchi soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Small piece of kombu (2 inches approx)
  • 2 deboned chicken legs, with skin
  • 1 teaspoon arima sansho

Instructions:

Preparing the Kabocha:

  1. Carefully cut the kabocha into even slices, ensuring all pieces are of similar weight for even cooking.
  2. Trim the edges of each slice (mentori) to increase surface area for flavor absorption, improve aesthetics, and prevent breaking during cooking.
  3. Make nicks in the skin of the kabocha slices to allow for expansion during cooking without crumbling.

Cooking Kabocha:

  1. Place kabocha slices skin side down in a medium-sized saucepan.
  2. Add dashi, mirin, sugar, and kombu to the saucepan.
  3. Cook over medium heat until the liquid boils, then reduce to a gentle simmer until kabocha is just cooked through.
  4. Once kabocha is ready, turn off the heat and add usukuchi soy sauce. Let steep in the cooking liquid for at least an hour.

Preparing the Chicken:

  1. Preheat a skillet over high heat and brown the chicken legs, skin side down, to color the skin.
  2. Transfer the chicken to the saucepan with the kabocha cooking liquid, adding more dashi if necessary to cover the chicken.
  3. Cook for 15 minutes with a drop lid (aluminum foil with holes poked in it) directly on the liquid.

Serving:

  1. Slice the chicken across the grain.
  2. Reheat the kabocha in the cooking liquid by bringing it to a boil, then immediately turn off the heat.
  3. Arrange chicken slices alongside kabocha slices on a plate.
  4. Garnish with arima sansho.

Techniques and Their Purposes:

  • Trimming and Nicks in Kabocha: Enhances flavor absorption, visual appeal, and prevents the slices from breaking during cooking.
  • Using a Drop Lid: Ensures even cooking and flavor infusion into the chicken.
  • Steeping Kabocha: Allows it to fully absorb the flavors of the dashi, mirin, and soy sauce.
  • Ladle Measurements: Provides a quick and efficient way to measure liquids if you know your ladle's capacity.

Notes:

Kabocha: This squash must be ripened for at least a month after harvesting to convert its starches to sugar. The result is a luscious, sweet squash. Here's what Yamada-san did to bring out this lovely natural flavor: First, he carefully cut the kabocha in half and seeded it. Then he cut it in half again. He pointed out that the quarters have a thicker top part, and a thinner bottom part. When he cut the kabocha one more time (into eights) he cut the thicker side a little smaller -- so all the chunks had the same weight. Now he cut each chunk into even slices that weighed the same. The aim is to have same size slices so they all cook evenly. Once he finished the slices, he processed to trim the edges of each slice (called mentori I believe). Why? A couple of reasons: To create more surface area of the kabocha to absorb flavor, to make the slices aesthetically beautiful and to remove hard edges, so when the kabocha slices cook and hit each other, the delicate ingredient won't break apart. Finally, Yamada-san tapped the heel of his blade into the kabocha's skin to cut nicks into it, so when the kabocha cooks and the flesh expands, the harder skin will be able to expand with it and the slice won't crumble. Wow.

Ladlefuls: Why the heck am I talking about "ladlefuls" in the ingredients list? Well, if you know how much liquid your ladle holds, it's faster and easier to measure out ingredients using it than pouring liquids into a measuring cup! I'm all about expediency, so I know that my ladle (a shallow Japanese otama) holds 150ml or about 5fl oz of liquid. How much does your ladle hold?

Sugar in Japanese cooking Oe thing that struck me as odd when we cooked this dish was that Yamada-san added mirin, which is sweet, and sugar, ditto, to cook sweet kabocha. Isn't that sweet overkill? Au contraire, answered Yamada-san (but not in French). He explained that adding sugar and mirin to the dashi in fact keeps the sugar that naturally occurs in kabocha inside the ingredient when soy sauce is added. If there was no sugar in the cooking liquid, he explained, the salty soy sauce would pull the sweetness out of the kabocha. So you'd have a flavorful stock, but a flavorless kabocha. So the sugar in the stock keeps the natural sweetness of the kabocha intact.

All in all, sooo much to learn from this simple dish... thank you, Yamada-san!